Xenophon’s Anabasis (aka The Persian Expedition)

(This post is part of The Classics Circuit’s “Classic Greek” tour)

(Xenophon of Athens)

The Greeks and the Persians… They go waaaay back. Early in the fifth century B.C., after a revolt of the Greeks of Ionia (roughly the west coast of present day Turkey) against the Persian Achaemenid empire, the Persian king Darius (the Great) decided to punish the Greeks to prevent future rebellions, and embarked on a scheme of invasion – until he was soundly defeated at the famous battle of Marathon. Later, the equally bellicose son of Darius, named Xerxes, gave it another try, but he in turn was defeated in another famous battle – Thermopylae. Now, “everyone” knows of these two Persian encounters, but lesser known is the tale of Xenophon in “Anabasis.”

One of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the word, Anabasis, is “a difficult and dangerous military retreat,” and that is exactly what faced the author Xenophon and the army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries of which he was a part. Around 400 B.C., after the death of the then Persian ruler, Darius, a struggle for the Persian throne took place. Darius had two sons, Artaxerxes and Cyrus, the latter of which ruled over Asia Minor and had supported Sparta towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. This connection allowed him to assemble an army of Greek mercenaries, ostensibly hired to put down a rebellion, but in reality Cyrus decided to use them to try to wrest control of the empire from Artaxerxes. The mercenaries, led by the general Clearchus (a Spartan – and for a good reference list of the characters in this book, see the following website http://literapedia.wikispaces.com/Anabasis+-+The+Persian+Expedition) were somewhat dismayed to find themselves marching against the Persian King instead of some rebellious rabble, eventually decide to continue on in service of the charismatic leader, Cyrus (of course, I’m sure promises of increased pay did not hurt their making this decision).

They meet the forces of Artaxerxes, under command of his treacherous general, Tissaphernes, in the battle of Cuxana. Though greatly outnumbered, the Greek hoplites are much superior to their Persian counterparts and are effectively carrying the day in the battle, but a javelin ends the life of Cyrus himself, thus rendering the “victory” to the King’s army. Now the Greeks were in a pickle. Deep in the heart of Persia, they were surrounded” by a hostile army of the now undisputed king, who was telling them to lay down their arms. What follows deliberations amongst Clearchus and the other generals, trying to decide if they should put their fate in the hands of Tissaphernes by laying down their arms or try to march home. They decide on the latter and, after further negotiations with Tissarphenes, seem to have reached a nervous truce and agreement to march north to the sea, not making war along the way but taking only whatever provisions they might need, etc.

Treachery ensues, however, when Tissarphenes, after inviting the Greek generals to a banquet, seizes and murders them. (I should mention that Xenophon often digresses into a biographical sketch of characters who die in this narrative, the longest of which being that following Cyrus’s death at Cuxana, but also paying the same tribute to the slain Greek generals) Faced with this new crisis, the Greek army holds council amounts itself and elects new generals, of which Xenophon is one of “the lucky ones.” Now knowing they cannot trust the Persians, they resolutely and inexorably begin marching north. The cities and settlements they pass through (and sometimes plunder for provisions) give a tantalizing glimpse of what must have been the wealth of the Persian Empire. Harried and attacked during much of their retreat, they finally arrive at the Black Sea, amid shouts of “Thalatta! Thalatta!” (the sea! the sea!). They rejoice because they are once again in the realm of “Greek” cities. The journey does not end there, however, as they engage in additional mercenary duties along the way “home.”

As mentioned earlier, fewer people know or have read Xenophon when compared with the titans of Greek Historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, but I’d recommend Xenophon as a competent companion to these other greats. It has been inspirational to many across the centuries and must have also intoxicated Alexander the Great whose conquest of Persia roughly 75 years later is also the stuff of legend…

(Below: One of my favorite “classic” works of art – Alexander (he’s on the far left) vs. Darius at the battle of Issus.)


  1. Falaise said,

    February 4, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Xenophon is great – we had to read pieces of this at school and it was a nice change from Herodotus.


  2. rebeccareid said,

    February 8, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    This sounds much less intimidating than Herodotus. But I haven’t read either! Thanks for the background, how interesting that he was a part of it all. Should give it an interesting perspective.

    Thanks for participating in the Circuit!


    • Jay said,

      February 12, 2011 at 11:59 pm

      Thank you for hosting the circuit. I will check back for future tours… 🙂


  3. leonidas said,

    October 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    This was the basis for the movie THE WARRIORS’ which described the story in the OP sequence. Xenophon’s narratives were described as 2nd-rate narratives but his depiction of the march was one of the most compelling because instead of Marathon or Thermopylae, it was more of a tragedy but eventual victory against all odds.

    On another subject, until now, I never trust persians/Iranians etc..


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